State House looks to course-correct Cover Oregon problems

State House looks to course-correct Cover Oregon problems »Play Video
Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, (left) testifies before the House Committee on Health Care at the Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. She's sponsoring a bill that seeks to help Oregonians not be penalized because of the state's problem-plagued Cover Oregon website.

SALEM, Ore. -   State lawmakers turned up the heat to course-correct Cover Oregon's problem-plagued health insurance exchange Wednesday with the first of several bills.
 
House Bill 4154 calls for Cover Oregon officials to seek more flexibility from the Obama administration by extending the open enrollment deadline by one month, from March 31 to April 30, in order to provide Oregonians more time to sign up for health insurance through the exchange.

Secondly, the measure ensures families and small businesses get the tax subsidies they would have received through Cover Oregon, but may not have received if they signed up directly with insurance companies to expedite their enrollment in the midst of Cover Oregon's online enrollment problems.

The bill also would allow Gov. John Kitzhaber to remove members from Cover Oregon's board of directors. Right now he's only allowed to get rid of three members a year.

Finally, the measure would also extend whistleblower protections that apply to most state workers to employees of Cover Oregon, which is a partly public corporation that's exempt from many state rules.
 
"There have been massive failures in Cover Oregon and I'm here today with House Bill 4154 because I think we can all also agree, that Oregonians should not be the ones to pay the price for those failures," said Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, the bill's sponsor.
 
The Cover Oregon website is a state-run online marketplace where Oregonians can find and purchase health insurance, but it's had arguably one of the worst of the Affordable Care Act rollouts in the country. Despite a grand vision, an earlier start and millions of dollars from the government, the website has been in shambles since its Oct. 1 launch date. To this day, not a single person has been enrolled online.

When it became clear that the troubled website jeopardized enrollment, Cover Oregon hired more than 400 temporary workers to process paper applications. The hires were a backup plan while Cover Oregon staff fixed the bugs in the website. But the subsequent switch to hand-processed paper forms left an untold number of applications in processing limbo. In what the governor now refers to as a "hybrid" website, pieces of the Cover Oregon site are working and some portions of the processing are automated, but no one can sit down and enroll from start to finish.
 
As of late January, nearly 90,000 people had enrolled, 32,000 of them in private insurance and the rest in the Oregon Health Plan, the state's version of Medicaid. Another 123,000 people had enrolled directly in Medicaid through a process that bypasses Cover Oregon.

"What this bill does, it gives us tools so that once we know the picture - the entire picture - and we're out of sessions, we already have the tools to take swift action on behalf of Oregonians," Fagan told KATU.

Several lawmakers sitting on the committee suggested amendments to give Fagan's proposed bill more teeth.

But others like Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, think it's time to consider other options first.

"I don't know that it's appropriate to look at a piece of legislation right now with some bite-around-the-edge fixes when we don't even really know if we should try to stop and look at what's next," Parrish said. "I've asked for an audit from the federal government, I'd love for the secretary of state to get in and do that. I think we need more information before we try to do more piecework around the edges to try to solve Cover Oregon."

The On Your Side Investigators also contacted the governor's office Wednesday to find out more details about extending the enrollment deadline. In an email, a spokesman said the governor has not taken any action to extend the deadline but said the Oregon Health Authority's acting director, Tina Edlund, is talking to the federal government to get more Oregonians covered.

The House committee took no formal action but promised to return to the bill.
 
Tomorrow, House Bill 4122 is up for debate in a different House committee, which would require certain large projects to have an independent quality assurance contractor.

Getting answers from the governor

Lawmakers have raised key questions about Cover Oregon problems and so have the On Your Side Investigators. KATU's tried to sit down with the governor to have a meaningful conversation about Cover Oregon but so far, he hasn't addressed some major problems including allegations - in a story that KATU broke - about a possible FBI investigation.
    
The FBI hasn't confirmed or denied an investigation but that topic came up at a press conference - attended by the governor - about wind energy in Portland Wednesday. Kitzhaber never directly answered the question.

"Two things on Cover Oregon," Kitzhaber responded. "First, as you know, we've taken the elements of the website that are working in a hybrid process and we've enrolled over 90,000 people through the exchange, another 122,000 people through the fast track so, of 600,000 people who had no coverage on Jan. 1, 215,000 have coverage. We increased the number of people who have insurance coverage by 30 percent in a month. That's a pretty good story."

Following the press conference, the On Your Side Investigators tried to get the governor to answer questions about Cover Oregon's problem-plagued website, including why he changed his story about when he first knew about Cover Oregon's technology problems.

In a sit-down interview with KATU in January, Kitzhaber said he didn't find out about the health insurance exchange's long list of technology problems until one month after the site went live. However, Kitzhaber recently reported to other media outlets that he knew about the problems a year before the site launched but received assurances the website problems were under control. Kitzhaber has not publicly stated who gave him those assurances.
    
The secretary of state audit

On Wednesday, KATU also confirmed that the secretary of state's office will conduct an audit of Cover Oregon later this year, according to secretary of state spokesman Tony Green. The earliest they can begin is October 2014, one year after the site went live, said Green. That's according to state law.


Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: